The number of farms in the United States is expanding, reversing a long-standing decline that spanned nearly 70 years. This would be the first time the overall number of farms has increased since 1935, when many Americans were pushed back into the fields due to the Great Depression.
Though the increase is slight, The Washington Post reports in an article available here that the small “blip” is still notable.
The chart to the right shows the rise and fall of the number of U.S. farms. It also demonstrates the historical trend of American food production, including the development of hybrid crops in the 1920s as well as increased productivity thanks to farming methods, mechanized equipment and fertilizers. It also shows that today’s farmers have been able to produce more food on fewer farms.
Stuart Staniford took the chart analysis one step further:
“Note also that the 2007 census is just before the great recession and it's possible the 2012 census will show a larger increase given both the recession and, perhaps, an ongoing trend amongst young people of returning to agriculture,” Staniford wrote on this blog. “So, we are a long way from Sharon Astyk's Nation of Farmers, but it certainly looks like the giant loss of US farm count in the mid twentieth century has stabilized and perhaps now begun some kind of bounce back.”
The Washington Post report suggested that the increase could be attributed to resurgence in the local food movement among consumers, but other media sources suggest that it may not be the only cause.
According to The New York Times, there is a renewed interest in agricultural production among young and college-educated Americans. For some, the interest in agriculture was developed as college students, most in non-agriculture degree programs, worked on farms to supplement their college education fund.
It was this experience that ignited a passion that continued into their professional career, taking them from the cubical to the field. While it's unclear exactly where or how large these up-and-coming farms are, they are more likely linked to crops instead of livestock.
The USDA does not have statistics on the number of college graduates who have turned to farming in the past few years, but Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, told The New York Times in an interview that the profession is becoming more attractive.
“I always joke that in the old days I used to go to a party and people would say, ‘What do you do for work,’ and I would say, ‘I work in agriculture,’ and I’d be left in the corner somewhere with my gin and tonic,” Merrigan said. “Now I say I work in agriculture and I’m the belle of the ball.”
Sharon Astyk, author of “A Nation of Farmers,” suggests that while the increase is a good for agriculture and food production, it still falls short of meeting the demand for younger farmers in the coming years as current producers quickly face retirement.
“Let us say that we will need only 2% of the US population to become farmers,” Astyk wrote in a blog post, available here. “But since the vast majority of farmers are facing retirement within the next two decades, and under 35 farmers are such a tiny percentage, that means we will need to train 30-50 times as many young farmers in the next two decades as we have been doing. The numbers could be substantially higher.”